French Renaissance literature
The column published on April 10 examines how literature during the
French Renaissance passed through four fairly distinct phases. Each new
generation of writers developed its own set of ideas and styles. Many
important works of this period are difficult to place within specific
genres, or literary forms. Writers often created new forms by combining
elements of various older traditions.
The first generation included Clément Marot, Margaret of Navarre, and
François Rabelais. These writers borrowed the forms and customs of
medieval literature, but used them to express anti-medieval ideas and
Marot's earliest poems are allegories in the tradition of the Roman
de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), a long French poem about courtly love,
which was studied on March 20- ‘Fabliaux, Farces and Morality Tales’.
Margaret of Navarre was the queen consort of the Kingdom of Sicily
during the reign of William I (1154–1166) and the regent during the
minority of her son, William II. She was also the daughter of King
García Ramírez of Navarre and Marguerite de l'Aigle.
She was married at a young age to William, while he was still a
prince, the fourth son of Roger II of Sicily. She also wrote several
plays similar in style and form to medieval farces, but with a new
emphasis on religious themes. She also copied the short, humorous, and
often obscene stories of the Middle Ages in her Cent Nouvelles (One
However, Francois Rabelais is the possibly the most groundbreaking
writer of this generation. Gargantua and Pantagruel is probably Francois
Rabelais most famous work.
He uses satire to address the dislocation felt by Renaissance
Humanists. By providing an exaggerated fable, comical in nature,
Rabelais exposes the extremes of both the Medieval and the Renaissance
man. More importantly, however, he brings into question his own ideas of
Use of satire
To understand the Gargantua and Pantagruel it is necessary to first
understand Rabelais’ use of satire. As a man whose life spans the
transition between the Medieval (Middle) Ages and the Renaissance,
Rabelais, as most scholars of the time period, had to cope with a huge
shift in thoughts and ideals.
Between the changes in religion stemming from the Protestant
Reformation, the changes in education stemming from the popularity of
great philosophical thinkers, the move towards science and humanism, and
the questioning of the universe arising from Copernicus’ discoveries,
Rabelais felt the immense dislocation of his generation. He used satire,
parody, and fantasy as a means to cope with this dislocation.
Through the monstrous and grotesque comedy of Gargantua and
Pantagruel, Rabelais is able to ridicule the institutions of his world
without necessarily being offensive. He entices his readers to laugh at
the events and human thoughts of his generation.
Rabelais mixed in his books elements from different narrative forms –
chronicle, farce, dialogue, commentary etc, and peppered them with broad
With his flood of outrageous ideas and anecdotes Rabelais emphasized
the physical joys of life – food, drink, sex, and bodily functions
connected to them – and mocked asceticism and oppressive religious and
political forces. Much of their time Gargantua and Pantagruel are
occupied with drinking which earned Rabelais the reputation of a
"Drink always and you shall never die," Rabelais wrote. In folklore
Penthagruel was a dwarf-devil who preyed on drunkards. Rabelais
explained that Panta in Greek is all and Gruel means in Hagarene
language thirsty, thus his name means 'all-thirsty'. Rabelais' works
influenced a long line of writers from Cervantes, Laurence Sterne to
Pantagruel and Gargantua is a connected series of five novels written
in the 16th century by François Rabelais. It is the story of two giants,
a father (Gargantua) and his son (Pantagruel) and their adventures,
written in an amusing, extravagant, satirical vein.
There is much crudity and scatological humour as well as a large
amount of violence. Long lists of vulgar insults fill several chapters.
Rabelais was one of the first Frenchmen to learn Ancient Greek, from
which he brought some 500 words into the French language. His quibbling
and other wordplay fills the book, and is quite free from any
Although modern editions of Rabelais's work place Pantagruel as the
second volume of a series, it was actually published first, around 1532
under the pen name Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of François Rabelais.
Pantagruel was a sequel to an anonymous book entitled Les Grandes
Chroniques du Grand et Enorme Géant Gargantua. This early Gargantua text
enjoyed great popularity, despite its rather poor construction.
Rabelais's giants are not described as being of any fixed height, as
in the first two books of Gulliver's Travels, but vary in size from
chapter to chapter to enable a series of astonishing images as though
these were tall tales. For example, in one chapter Pantagruel is able to
fit into a courtroom to argue a case but in another the narrator resides
inside Pantagruel's mouth for six months and discovers an entire nation
living around his teeth.
After the success of Pantagruel, Rabelais revisited and revised his
source material. He produced an improved narrative of the life and acts
of Pantagruel's father in Gargantua.
This volume included one of the most notable parables in Western
Philosophy: that of the Abbey of Thélème, which can either be considered
a point-for-point critique of the educational practices of the age, or a
call to free schooling, or all sorts of notions on human nature.
Rabelais then returned to the story of Pantagruel himself in the last
three books. The third book concerns Pantagruel and his friend Panurge,
who spend the entire book discussing with many people the question of
whether Panurge should marry; the question is unresolved.
The book ends with the start of a sea voyage in search of the oracle
of the divine bottle to resolve once and for all the question of
The sea voyage continues for the whole of the Quart-Livre. Pantagruel
encounters many exotic and strange characters and societies during this
voyage, such as the Shysteroos, who make their living by charging people
to beat them up.
The whole book can be seen as a comical retelling of the Odyssey or -
more convincingly - of the story Jason and the Argonauts. In the
Quart-Livre, which has been described as his most satirical book,
Rabelais criticises what he perceived as the arrogance and wealth of the
Roman Catholic Church, the political figures of the time, popular
superstitions and addresses several religious, political, linguistic and
At the end of the fifth volume, which was published around 1564, the
divine bottle is found. The epic journey ends with Pantagruel producing
a large piece of faeces, perhaps the ultimate commentary on the subjects
of politics and religion which the books satirise.
Although some parts of book 5 are truly worthy of Rabelais, the last
volume's attribution to him is debatable. Book five was not published
until nine years after Rabelais's death and includes much material that
is likely to have been borrowed (such as from Lucian's True History and
Francesco Colonna's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili) or of lesser quality than
the previous books.
In the notes to his translation of Gargantua and Pantegruel, Donald
M. Frame proposes that book 5 may have been formed from unfinished
material that a publisher later patched together into a book.
Gargantua and Pantagruel is named after the legendary Medieval giants
who were notable not only for their immense size but their immensely
The two giants were symbolically expanded by Rabelais in order for
him to make very pointed and often quite funny observations about the
failing of men and to further his own belief in the philosophy of
naturalism. Rabelais was very much in line with the humanism of Erasmus.
What that means is that Gargantua and Pantagruel reserves much of its
sharpest satirical claws for the ripping up of the highly ritualistic
ceremonies of the Catholic Church, while also pulling out the shears to
shred the equally arrogant perspective of scholasticism. Rabelais
focused his attention on denuding the idiocy of superstitious beliefs
regardless of from where they stemmed.
Where Francois Rabelais differed from Erasmus was in his choice of
language. While Erasmus wrote in the elevated classical style that
appealed only to the educated, Rabelais wrote in an earthy style that
spoke to the common French man.
He was especially enjoyed because of his ability to inject crudity
and even vulgarity into his tales. While this lower class of writing was
doubtlessly instrumental in making Rabelais popular to the multitudes,
it must also be concluded that he became popular because of his
unwillingness to become too preachy and to avoid the path of moral
Gargantua and Pantagruel takes the giants as symbols of entities who
lust for life. Rabelais himself believed that every human desire and
endeavour was healthy as long as it was not directed towards oppression
As such, the ideal of a Rabelais utopia is one where repression of
emotions that do not inflict damage upon others is the norm. A world
built upon the idealization of Rabelais would be one in which laws were
not constructed to interfere with any pursuit of happiness that did not
inflict authority upon others.
By the way that he shows the giant in Gargantua and Pantagruel,
Rabelais is satirizing two schools of thought. He shows effectively that
both Medieval and Renaissance, in their extreme forms are limited. By
presenting both, using satire Rabelais suggests that both Medieval and
Renaissance thinking will pass and that learning is a necessary attempt
to understand the world.